An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mormon meetings’

What Kind of Vision? What Kind of Members?

At First Unitarian Church this Sunday, Pastor Tom Goldsmith began his remarks by alluding to the terrible events of the past week—the murder of the U.S. Ambassador and guards in Libya, the anti-American uprisings throughout the Middle-east. I thought, “Wow! There’s not a Mormon congregation hearing any reference to current events this morning.” Even on the Sunday following 9/11 and the Sunday following the assassination of JFK, Mormon congregations heard the same standard talks and lessons on the same, standard topics.

Pastor Goldsmith segued his comments on the current outburst of intolerance and violence into a sermon on freedom—freedom from—and freedom for. He used the Vatican’s condemnation of Sister Margaret Farley’s book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Social Ethics, as an example of the constraints which more conservative religions place upon members. Then, he turned the barb to Unitarians who pride themselves on being “creedless.”

Unitarians, Episcopalians, and other liberal denominations have been losing members for decades. “The problem is not that we don’t have freedom,” said Goldsmith. “The problem is we haven’t decided what our freedom is for. We haven’t defined our vision of a moral society.”

Goldsmith gave no “call to arms.” He provided no solution for his congregation. How could such an immense problem be resolved in one brief sermon? What he did accomplish was to leave his flock with an important issue upon which to ponder—to think—to work on their own visions of a moral society and the best way to achieve it.

Mormons, and probably members of other fundamentalist faiths, are uncomfortable with open-ended questions and problems without black and white answers. Mormons are used to top-down answers and directives. That is why Mormon bishops failed to offer comfort to their congregations on the Sunday following JFK’s assassination as well as the 9/11 attack. Mormon local leaders generally wait for authority from headquarters before deviating from the standard script for meetings.

I know the intent of top-level control over Mormon meetings is to keep false doctrine from being taught. However, I do think Church leaders would do well to consider:  a) Is it working? I still hear plenty of spurious stories told over my ward pulpit. b) What are the effects of no spontaneity, no reference to current life situations in meetings? Does it cause members to feel the Church lacks relevance to their own lives? c) What kind of people are attracted to an organization which values cut-and-dried answers over thinking and problem solving—and are these the members that will most benefit the Church?

Crisis of Faith

As a child, I enjoyed neither Primary nor Sunday School. My dad worked Sundays and my mother had to get dinner or care for my baby brother on Sunday mornings, so my brother Dooby and I were sent to church only half the time. But I knew I should go—something about blessings bestowed for seat time. I felt guilty when I didn’t attend—something about disappointing Heavenly Father. Church attendance for guilt appeasement continued until I left Utah. Our ward in Casper, Wyoming was so welcoming—the people so interesting—that one morning as I dressed for church, I was shocked to realize I looked forward to meeting my friends there and learning their take on the gospel.

Church attendance generally inspired me for almost 20 years. Sisters in Relief Society provided the wisdom I would have received had my mother lived longer. Scripture study in Gospel Doctrine class fed me intellectually and spiritually as we spent two years each delving into both Old and New Testaments. Repeated study of the Book of Mormon—my least favorite of the four standard works—helped me winnow spiritual gems such as King Benjamin’s admonition to share with the poor without judging whether they deserve their misfortune for, “are we not all beggars?” Alma’s teachings that the baptismal covenant includes being “willing to bear one another’s burdens” was another spiritual find.

Mormon meetings and activities met my social needs—especially when I became a Stay-at-Home-Mom and had no other access to adult company. Church provided spiritual comfort. I was taught, and in turn taught, that Heavenly Father is a kind, loving parent who would guide me in making wise decisions, help me deal with challenges, and raise my children righteously.

After sixteen years of marriage, George and I decided we needed a change in our lives. Instead of having separate flings, we decided to move. We fasted and prayed for guidance, received a confirmation, then plunged ahead into the worst financial decision of our lives. Church isn’t a lot of comfort when you do something stupid. In fact, it makes it worse to associate with people who relate their experiences of fasting, praying, and getting the right answers. I struggled with God’s unwillingness to bless us when we were trying so hard to obey the commandments.

Before I’d resolved that crisis, the church decided to save money by recycling Relief Society lesson manuals. Lessons that were already fairly similar were repeated until I could not only recite the lines with the teacher, I could predict when Sister Wilson would share the time she had gone back to the grocery store to return the 86 cents extra change the checker had given her—or when Sister Barnes would describe walking out of a movie with inappropriate language. I replaced Relief Society with my own home schooling.

Sunday School held my attention for several years longer because lessons were based on passages of scripture. But even scriptures get tedious if only one interpretation is allowed. General Conference, which used to inspire me, lulled me to sleep. I’m not sure if the speakers changed or if I had just heard it all before. But not attending church left a hole in my life. I investigated several possibilities and found spiritual compatibility with Buddhist study.

Primary Reason to Shorten the Block

While visiting teaching last week, I listened to Primary teachers share the difficulty of controlling the ADHD, autistic, and just plain wild kids in our ward. Church policy now mandates two teachers per class which hasn’t helped the discipline problem, but has exacerbated the staffing problem. I heard hair-raising stories of teachers and presidency members spending the second and third hour of the block chasing 9-year-olds who improvise games of hide and seek or trying to cajole disruptive children from sharing time without touching them as per policy.  Theoretically, parents are supposed to be asked to step in when their child creates a problem, but apparently that doesn’t always happen—possibly because the parents have no more success controlling their kids than the Primary workers.

I’m always impressed with the children’s programs when I visit non-LDS churches. Non-Mormon kids are not expected to sit quietly with arms folded for two hours. For one thing, the services are shorter than two hours. And the children’s worship service is geared to children. Short verbal lessons are accompanied with hands-on activities—toys to share, dancing as well as singing about Jesus, painting—no Sunday best finery to keep clean. Older children help organize younger children for active games. In nice weather children spend time outside enjoying God’s beautiful world instead of sitting on folding chairs in a tiny room and being shushed for a lesson that goes on and on and on.

It’s unlikely that the Mormon tradition of equating quiet with reverent worship as well as the limitations of space will ever allow a Primary program geared to the needs of active children. A reasonable alternative is shortening the time for children to sit quietly. Possibly the problem of staffing as well as the difficulty of keeping kids quiet for a full three hours every Sunday will eventually force a cutback to a two-hour block. For years I’ve maintained that mandating all General Authorities to take a one-year hiatus every three years, return to their home wards, and serve in Primary would cut the block time immediately—if not sooner.

And would anybody care if Sacrament Meeting were followed by one adult class instead of two? It wouldn’t much matter which one was kept. The Sunday School and the Priesthood/Relief Society lesson topics—even the quotes from General Authorities are about the same. Cutting that third hour would probably make both Primary children and staff enjoy a more spiritual Sunday. And adults who snooze through the latter portion of the block could nap more comfortably at home.

Tag Cloud